ACT News


The ACT political stories that shaped Canberra in 2017

Maybe it's the rainbow bus that just rattled by my window, but Canberra feels a little more colourful - and dare I say cooler - than this time last year.

Sure, Northbourne looks like someone rolled a jumbo-sized bowling ball down it as the tram carves its way from Gungahlin to Civic, driving every commuter from Bonner to Braddon mad in the process.

But it's like we're undergoing a metamorphosis - shedding our stuffy, ill-fitting skin and becoming the place Lonely Planet thinks we already are.

But has Canberra been a guiding light or a flaming bin fire this year?

Looking back at the headlines from the past 12 months, it's been a year of firsts to say the least.

The first light rail tracks were laid, the first vehicle arrived and the first person that tagged it will likely never run out of die-hard can-the-trammers to buy them a pint at the pub.


We also got a look at how the second stage of the light rail line will get to Woden (but not the hospital as it turns out) however we're yet to see a business case for it, despite promises otherwise.

Labor managed to get some substantial liquor law reforms over the line although I'm told no minors have been deployed in sting operations to catch out vendors selling booze to underage drinkers yet.

The Greens used their sway in the Legislative Assembly to help bring about several of these reforms - albeit with leader Shane Rattenbury looking like "an unmade bed" while doing it.

The ACT became the first place in Australia to outlaw greyhound racing, although the industry is pulling out all stops - including using The Castle defence - to try and stop the ban becoming effective next April.

We also became the first jurisdiction to introduce a mandatory pre-commitment scheme for poker machines.

Don't pop your cork just yet though - the scheme only comes into effect if the Canberra Casino decides to pursue a major redevelopment.

Given the casino will be allowed to operate 300 fewer poker machines than it wanted with $2 maximum spins, questions have to be asked about how feasible it really is.

The plight of problem gambler Laurie Brown, who was able to feed $230,000 through the pokies by exploiting a loophole that allowed punters to withdraw unlimited amounts of money, triggered a bid to ban eftpos cashouts in clubs.

But, as is so often the case, the legislative response fell far short of what was called for and gambling reform is likely to be one of the big issues again next year.

Bureaucratic bungles abounded - from more health data stuff-ups, to prisoners accidentally being released because of an "administrative error".

The Justice and Community Safety Directorate actually has form in this area - the ACT's parliament had to quickly patch what was called an "administrative oversight" earlier in the year after it was found staff were ordering people into rehab or undertake community service work without proper authority.

Then there were the more serious, systemic failings.

Whistleblowers blew the lid off six years of violence and abuse inside the Bimberi youth detention centre.

The government's executive director of youth services, Dr Mark Collis, gave the press conference from hell, scrambling to explain away the allegations of excessive use of force, underresourced staff and racial abuse inside the facility.

The embattled Land Development Agency shut down in June, spawning the City Renewal Authority and Suburban Land Agency, but the headaches it caused just won't go away.

All of the key players in the controversial land deals at Glebe Park and West Basin were pulled before parliamentary hearings in the later half of this year after a scathing audit by ACT Auditor-General Maxine Cooper.

Given Dr Cooper has turned her sharp eyes towards the Dickson landswap too, it is likely there will be more to say on this in the new year.

The government's inertia on bikie violence and dangerous dogs allowed the Canberra Liberals to put a few past the post, if not in law then in the eyes of the public.

The late Steve Doszpot championed reform of the city's dangerous dog laws, which gathered momentum after Canberra woman Tania Klemke was killed by her own dog.

Liberal leader Alistair Coe and his team were dogged in their pursuit of the government over rates rises, sweetheart deals and Labor's relationships with the unions.

The cat-amongst-the-pigeons Mark Parton spent a fair bit of the year with his foot in his mouth (he famously compared problem gambling to a chocolate addiction) but he valiantly went into the trenches for issues others wouldn't touch and inadvertently became the Legislative Assembly's "Donald Trump" in the process.

However the Opposition scored an own goal when it tried to knock off Chief Minister Andrew Barr by alleging the CFMEU Dickson land swap deal was "corrupt" before the auditor-general handed down her findings.

Not only did it fire too soon and miss, it was forced to make a rather embarrassing apology to the CFMEU.

Outside the argy-bargy of the Assembly, 2017 felt like a landmark year for civic participation.

Between an inquiry into whether Canberra's billboard ban should be overturned (which sparked a rather cheeky protest) and Weston Creek residents marching a whopping 15 kilometres into town to rail against public housing, it seemed like people were finally getting involved.

It was a little underwhelming when only 117 people put their hand up for the compulsory third party insurance citizens jury, when 6000 invites were mailed out, but I live in hope this signals a turning point for how governments and the governed can get things done together.

Some of the government's efforts to consult feel token at best and inconsequential at worst (mammal emblem anyone?) so the challenge in the new year will be to strike a better balance between talk and action.

Katie Burgess is a Canberra Times reporter at the ACT Legislative Assembly.